Power to the Peoples
The decade was particularly crucial in democratizing "gourmet" food. New York Times food critic Craig Clairborn revolutionized restaurant criticism by--gasp!--reviewing ethnic restaurants and stressing value over ostentation. The 1963 debut of The French Chef demystified Gallic cooking, the most hallowed in the world, for the nation. Julia Child's easygoing manner and ability to make light of her own live, on-screen food failures made the once-haute cuisine approachable and, well, fun.
Baltimore's most approachable and fun--not to mention most reasonably priced--French restaurant is Martick's Restaurant Français (214 W. Mulberry St.,  752-5155). This downtown speakeasy-turned-bistro is an institution; Morris Martick himself is a local legend, peering at prospective patrons through a peephole before opening the door. Go for the best pâté in the city, the ambrosial sweet-potato soup, the bouillabaisse, the curry-scented Persian chicken with apricots, nuts, and raisins. In short, go for fantastic French in an idiosyncratic setting. (And go soon--the city has threatened to condemn Martick's as part of the west-side redevelopment project.)
If Martick's is the Natty Boh of French dining in Baltimore, then Petit Louis Bistro is National Premium (4800 Roland Ave.,  366-9393). A tad more upscale in its aspirations, a little fancier in the packaging, Petit Louis specializes in French classics such as croque monsieur, cassoulet, and steak frites--ironically, blue-collar foods back in the old country. This Roland Park kitchen, run by Charleston chef Cindy Wolf, is talented, though the food has to pass through service that sometimes feels like amateur night. Nonetheless, durn good chow, and where else in the city is there clafouti for dessert?
Tersiguel's (8293 Main St., Ellicott City,  465-4004), located in the Victorian home of Ellicott City's first mayor, has country French fare and lovely ambiance; the intimate, softly lit front room is especially romantic. Everything except the bread is made on the premises; as a result, the best menu items tend to be simple preparations of homemade ingredients, such as the outstanding sausage, grilled and served with warm potato salad. We especially like the saumon fumé, house-smoked salmon served with potato pancakes and crème fraiche, and the straightforward but divine pan-roasted chicken. Tersiguel's is un peu cher; dinner might be in the realm of Big Night Out, but lunch is priced to accommodate a modest budget.
Not all French food is elaborate, expensive fare. Crêpe Du Jour (1609 Sulgrave Ave.,  542-9000) reminds us of the street food of Paris. The City of Light has its curbside crêpe stands, and we've got this Mount Washington café, where we can drink a citron pressé and pretend we're on the Left Bank. Although Crêpe Du Jour's savory crêpes (La Napoléon, with brie, mushrooms, and artichokes, is a favorite) are very fine, our trip down la rue de rétro is best served by the sweet. The St. Germain (filled with caramelized apples and Calvados liqueur, served with ice cream) is truly deluxe, but best of all are the perfectly simple, simply perfect crêpes themselves, with a mere dusting of sugar or a smear of Nutella.
Julia Child did not bring French food to the United States herself, of course. We already knew about it; we were just intimidated. America in the '60s, however, was largely unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine--unfamiliar, that is, until 1964, when Hiroaki "Rocky" Aoki opened a restaurant called Benihana in New York. Aoki modestly attributes to himself the current mainstream popularity of Japanese food, claiming on the now-chain's Web site that Benihana "paved the way in America for the popularity of other Japanese cooking styles. . . . Sushi is now a favorite all over the U.S. and soy sauce has become a staple in numerous American kitchens, all thanks to Benihana."
OK, Rocky, whatever you say. All we know is that sushi eventually reached Baltimore in the '80s. In 1984, Kawasaki (413 N. Charles St.,  659-7600), the city's oldest continually operating sushi restaurant, began dishing fish downtown. Named for Baltimore's sister city in Japan, Kawasaki is still one of the best sushi and sashimi suppliers in town, with invariably high-grade, impeccably fresh fish. Other dishes, particularly the feather-light tempuras, are also very good. Above all, Kawasaki has the most charming Japanese atmosphere in town--although that impression might have something to do with the wonderful selection of sakes, from astringent to smoky to sweet.
Just up Charles in Mount Vernon is Minato (800 N. Charles St.,  332-0332), where Alex Tran, husband of owner Tammy Tran, frequently mans the sushi bar, generously providing advice, free samples, and tips on sushi etiquette (dip the fish, not the rice, into the soy sauce--very lightly). Tran has steered us to hokkigai (surf clam) and uni (sea urchin). Some complain that the fish filets in Minato's nigiri are too small, but the big, stuffed maki please everyone.
Edo Sushi (53 E. Padonia Rd., Timonium,  667-9200) has transformed a sterile storefront into a soothing environment of golden wood, rice-paper screens, and serene kimono-clad waitresses. (You'll have to bring your own Sapporo because the place lacks a liquor license, but Padonia Liquors, a few doors down the strip mall, offers a discount on Japanese beer if you're going to Edo.) We're especially fond of the house rock-n-roll, a rotund wonder filled with unagi (grilled freshwater eel) on the inside and avocado, sesame seeds, and salty-sweet sauce on the outside. The delicate shumai and steaming seafood udon soup (with noodles, scallops, shrimp, and squid) should please even sushi-avoiders.
Though jet travel made the world and its cuisines ever more accessible during the '60s, many varieties of ethnic food were still limited to the regions, or neighborhoods, where immigrants settled: pierogi in Cleveland, lutefisk in Milwaukee, Chinese in Chinatowns the nation over. Mexican food was not so ghettoized, but it was largely unavailable outside of California and the Southwest. It started spreading in earnest in 1962, when Glen Bell opened the first Taco Bell in Downey, Calif., with an eye to taking the food nationwide. By the time he sold out to PepsiCo in 1978, Bell had built 868 of the ersatz "adobe mission" restaurants across the United States and its territories, including Guam.
Obviously, Taco Bell is to Mexican food what Pop-Tarts are to French pastry. Not that we're knocking the knockoffs, but most of the time we'd rather have Mexican food at a Mexican restaurant. El Taquito Mexicano (1744 Eastern Ave.,  563-7840) is a modest but pleasant Fells Point storefront decorated with vibrant weavings and posters advertising Mexican soft drinks. There's contemporary Latino pop music on the stereo and straightforward food on the menu; the servers will cheerfully accommodate rusty high-school Spanish speakers. Our favorite dish is the smoky, chile-intense conejo adobado (there's a chicken version for those who don't do rabbit), but zesty tacos al carbon (marinated grilled beef) are also very fine.
Another Mexican standout is El Salto II (8816 Waltham Woods Road, Parkville,  668-3980). (NB: The original El Salto is in Brooklyn Park, but it's not so good as the Parkville location.) Unless you're a big fan of sour mix the margaritas are not so fine, but there's a selection of Mexican beers--not to mention every possible combo plate under the sun. Chile rellenos are popular go-withs for the likes of carne asada or the cheese and onion enchiladas. But heck, we like the burritos, the tacos and the tamales too. Fortunately, there are 30 different combination platters to suit just about any jones.
The chili-pepper lights at Holy Frijoles (908 W. 36th St.,  235-2326 or 420 N. Charles,  752-2121) may suggest it would serve Coyote Café-inspired Southwestern fare, but the food is traditional all the way. Despite an uneven menu we like this Hampden eatery and its lunch-only downtown outpost. Maybe it's because if you BYOB, they'll bring you a bucket of ice, a bottle opener, and lime wedges. Maybe it's the flaky quesadillas, the enormous burritos, or the mile-high nachos. Most of all we like the mammoth, dirt-cheap servings and accommodating staff.
At New York's 1964 World's Fair, 36 countries each operated one or more restaurants serving their native foods. By fair's end, more than 51 million people, many of whom had been unfamiliar with Asian, African, or Middle Eastern foods, had visited the fair's 140 pavilions and grazed its 112 restaurants--sampling kimchi at the Korean pavilion; shwarma, hummus, and Turkish coffee at a Jordanian café; or tandoori chicken and paratha inside India's replica Hindu temple.
Talk about crossing cultural boundaries: The city's newest Indian restaurant, India Rasoi (411 S. High St.,  385-4900), is smack in the middle of Little Italy. The menu offers more than 80 different Indian specialties, including some much-welcome variations on standards. Try the paneer pakora (cheese is added to the usual potato-patty mixture) and dal makhani (with five different types of lentils instead of just the usual yellow). Or get benghan ki sabzi (eggplant and potatoes stir-fried with green herbs), or the bindi pyazz, an dish of okra, onions, and plenty of spice. Those overwhelmed by the lengthy menu can explore one of the chef's assortment platters--in meat or vegetarian versions--or catch the lunch buffet.
Banjara (1017 S. Charles St.,  962-1554) outshines other local Indian places in ambiance, with candlelit tables comfortably spaced in the sunflower-colored dining room. The kitchen handles its spices deftly, putting just the right amount of fire in the jalfrezi and then soothing the palate with a creamy, cardamom-laced korma. And service at this Federal Hill favorite is invariably gracious.
The New York event was something of a renegade World's Fair, breaking Bureau of International Expositions rules by being up for more than a year (April 22-Oct. 18, 1964 and April 21-Oct. 17, 1965). Also, the bureau had already endorsed the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, and the United States was only allowed one fair per decade. As a result, most of Europe and the entire Communist bloc boycotted the '64-'65 fair, which gave the developing nations of Asia, South America, and Africa a chance to step out of the industrialized world's shadow. (Although not entirely: Major U.S. corporations spent a billion dollars on lavish pavilions and entertainment.) While Asian and Latin-American restaurants have become ubiquitous in these parts, opportunities to eat African-style are few--but worth seeking out. Downtown's Five Seasons (322 N. Charles St., (410) 625-9787) and Mount Vernon's Ghion Ethiopian International Café (1100 Maryland Ave., (410) 752-3865) specialize in Ethiopian cuisine, which is finger food at its funnest. No utensils--just tear off pieces of springy injera bread to scoop up spicy meat stews and vegetables (don't miss the lentils) from a large communal platter.
People were perhaps more familiar with Greek food in 1964, as many Greek immigrants had gone into the restaurant business, particularly diners. But Greek dishes (also offered at the World's Fair) were usually a side note on menus dominated by roast beef and fried chicken. Gradually, Hellenic food became sought out in its own right. Samos (600 S. Oldham St.,  675-5292), an extremely informal Greektown eatery/carryout, has a gift for details. As evidence, we offer feathery, pale orange taramosalata (Greek caviar) and the hard-to-find melitzanosalata (eggplant salad), served not just with pita bread but with fabulous, fluffy grilled pita and crudites. Fried calamari are tender and first rate, and Samos' souvlaki is our permanent go-to version.
Zorba's Bar and Grill (4710 Eastern Ave.,  276-4484) offers more in the way of atmosphere, plus a wood-fire grill. Wonderful spit-roasted chicken, lamb, pork, whole fish, even bread are given the charcoal treatment, with juicy results. But this Greektown restaurant is no casual souvlaki counter; you'll find classic dishes like moussaka and pastitsio in addition to the marvelous grilled meats. And the retsina is the coldest in town.
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812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201